'This is the best time to be a Filipino'
April 16, 2006
Updated 01:32am (Mla time)
Ma. Ceres P. Doyo
WHERE is this coming from? What deep source brought forth this amazing phenomenon that shows in concrete what love and caring for one another truly means?
They call it GK (for Gawad Kalinga) 777. Their target: 700,000 homes in 7,000 communities in seven years-and they're getting there fast.
The Couples for Christ's GK community housing program for the very poor in this country and abroad has amazed and baffled even the most skeptical and cynical.
Antonio "Tony" Meloto, the name, face and voice behind the GK phenomenon, is himself surprised at what love has wrought.
Much has been written about the GK phenomenon, in which so many Filipinos here and abroad are now personally involved. Even foreigners leave their homelands to come and contribute their time and talent.
Both individuals and institutions have pledged their faith as well as their money in the revolutionary enterprise. And why not? They have seen its fruits.
At last, thousands of poor families are experiencing what it feels to live in dignity, what love of neighbor truly demands, what it means to receive and also to give-of themselves-in return.
Sweat equity, among them, but most of all, kalinga (care). Indeed, Gawad Kalinga means to give care.
Meloto tries his best to spread the credit, but there is no denying that he is a major driving spirit in all this.
The Inquirer visited Meloto in his family's Quezon City home and, with him, met with residents of GK Payatas, once a ghetto inhabited by garbage scavengers and lawless elements and now a clean, colorful community that thrives on hope.
The altered landscape is a jaw-dropping sight, yes, but physical structures are not all there is to the change.
Something greater has happened-and continues to happen-in GK communities such as this. For one thing, GK does not just build and leave.
A shanty at the end of the road is in the process of demolition, but its occupants are all smiles because on the same spot will rise a new structure 77 times better than the old.
Soon, the dwelling will be part of the hundreds of brightly painted homes. But more importantly, the occupants will feel that they indeed belong to a special community.
The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary continue to work there. The Mormons have donated a library.
"This is the best time to be a Filipino," Meloto says. There is no rhetoric there, only the solemnity and humility of one faced with a wondrous moment that he cannot allow to slip by.
Call it a moment of becoming.
One for the books
Meloto is no stranger to penury or plenty. He has experienced both sides of the tracks, so to speak.
His journey from here to there and back to where he began via a long and winding road that offered him a U-turn is one for the books, or even the movies.
Although GK projects are never tied up with religion (or politics) as far as the choice of beneficiaries, benefactors and volunteers is concerned, there is a spirituality that pervades GK undertakings.
Meloto turns to Acts 4:32-35 of the Bible to explain the GK spirit: "The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own ... There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need."
One has to think in terms of the collective, explains Meloto.
This is also what being a person for others means, says the economics graduate of the Ateneo de Manila, where to be "a man for others" is the dictum.
'I forgot the poor'
Ateneo students and graduates were among those who helped restore Payatas by transforming 200 shanties into homes.
Its graduating class of 2006 invited Meloto to be its commencement speaker.
But as Meloto confessed to the graduates, it was not easy for him to return to the Jesuit-run institution in the past 32 years:
"I didn't come to reunions and homecomings, simply because of a sense of guilt of a person who grew up with the suffering poor but later forgot them after I got an Ateneo education.
"I was so focused on repackaging and building up myself that I forgot the accompanying responsibility that came with the privilege of an Ateneo scholarship.
"I forgot the poor. I left them behind."
Thus, Meloto has no reason to blame the rich entirely for the plight of the poor:
"How could I expect them to love the poor whom they do not know when I, who grew up poor, forgot to help them?"
The turning point for Meloto came in 1985 when he and his wife Lyn joined Couples for Christ and met Frank Padilla, who was among those who founded the predominantly Catholic family movement in 1981.
The CFC is now present in 140 countries and works "to strengthen the church of the home, build the church of the poor, and help build the nation."
Lyn, Meloto wants to stress, brought him, a lapsed Catholic, back to the fold. Padilla helped him turn his life around and surrender his life to God.
"In CFC, it was a journey of the self," Meloto says. "I embraced the most amazing human reality that I am a son of God. I learned to live a life of celebration in solidarity with other Filipinos. It was a most exciting adventure."
The adventure included "restoring the Promised Land that is our country." And GK became the vehicle for this restoration.
"I knew in my heart that God was preparing me," Meloto reflects. "God had put my family aright. My wife and I were sent to Australia as country coordinators, and there we learned to live simply."
The GK started to take shape after that foreign stint. It was not all about building structures; it was also about building dreams.
Says Meloto: "Real poverty is not a lack of jobs but losing the capacity to dream. We would like to enable the poor to have middle-class dreams and help them work for them."
And how does one do that if not by going into a community? Meloto reminds all that Jesus went to a community of the poor and showed what servant leadership was about.
"Foot washing is at the heart of leadership," Meloto says, recalling that Jesus washed the feet of His apostles shortly before He was crucified.
It symbolizes equal worth and dignity, especially of the men, he points out.
In extreme poverty situations, according to Meloto, women rise to save the family but the men fall away because of despair. And then the men become predatory, he says. (It is a strange behavioral collapse despite the fact that the societal setup is still biased in men's favor.)
Meloto's own life journey as a man did not head in that direction. He rose to earn power and wealth in the corporate milieu.
He grew up in Bacolod City in Negros Occidental, where the yawning divide between the haves and the have-nots was a given.
In that context of a social volcano, one could say Meloto was a child of humble beginnings.
His mother was a public school teacher for more than 40 years. His father was a teacher too, and later, a clerk.
But raising a brood of six, two of whom were mentally disabled, was not easy for the couple.
When Meloto was a child, the family lived in a place close to a slum area. He knew the poor children by name and played with them.
He also knew he had relatives who were wealthy, but he realized early on that he belonged to the other side of the tracks. He felt insecure, particularly after an injury affected his left eye and left him cross-eyed for some time.
"No rich person was ever unkind to me," Meloto recalls.
He nurtured no wild rage, but he felt a lingering pain: "Mine was a societal wound."
Back where he came from
Pluck, luck and a good intelligence changed the course of his life.
The public school kid went to the United States via a student exchange program. Upon his return, he got a college scholarship at the Ateneo.
It was there, in the school of the mostly affluent, that it started-a denial of his roots and of who he was.
It was go, go, go for the gold and the good life after that. Until ...
Now back where he came from, in the bosom of the country's poor, Meloto offers his own experience of recrossing the divide.
In order to change, he says, one needs to focus on three things:
"One, I have to focus on the self and undergo personal renewal. I must detach myself from power and money. For example, I have given up my checking account and credit cards.
"Two, I must surrender myself to the bigger plan of God, and that includes surrendering my family.
"Three, I have to die to self. For example, since I am also working with Muslims, I had to give up eating pork."
The GK is building in Camp Abubakar, a Moro enclave.
Quite a number have followed the simple path in order to serve the poor via GK.
There is Elena Kanapi, who left her job as strategic planning director in an international ad agency in order to do full-time volunteer work.
Melo Villaroman, former director of business development for Asia of Procter and Gamble, came home from Singapore with his family and retired at 42 to work with the GK.
Mike Goco, former president of PDCP, is now a full-time volunteer handling the GK's administration and resource management.
Lawyer Patrick Durana and his wife Divine provide legal and corporate know-how in helping find land for the landless.
Much has been written about Dylan Wilk of the United Kingdom, who gave up his extravagant lifestyle to devote his time helping the Philippines through the GK. (He is now Meloto's son-in-law.)
And there are teacher Abigail Villamin of Canada, Jay Capati of Illiois, Eleanor Chichioco of New Jersey, and Erwin Fausto and TJ David, who gave up two years of the good life in their home countries to give of themselves to the Philippines.
The Melotos' four grown children-Anna, Wowee, Jay and Camille-are themselves involved one way or another with GK.
The youngest, 2-year-old Celine, who was adopted moments after her birth, does her share by lighting up any room.
Revolution of hope
And does he have any fears?
Says Meloto: "No major fears. I know we have placed a formidable challenge to ourselves in promoting the GK vision of building a squatter-free, slum-free, crime-free Philippines, where there is dignity for all.
"The reason I don't consider this a fear is that I believe this is what the majority of our people desire and are willing to work for if given the opportunity.
"I believe in the immense potential of the Filipino, including the poorest among them, who have shown greatness and excellence. I have seen this in more than 700 GK communities across the country, in empowering 70,000 to help themselves and one another.
"The GK has struck a gold mine, the Filipinos' immense capacity to love, hope, dream and work together. The GK is a revolution of hope. People are sharing the best of themselves for the least of our countrymen."
Meloto captures the GK phenomenon by quoting the prophet Isaiah: "Once you were forsaken, hated and unvisited, now I will make you the pride of the ages, a joy to generation after generation ... No longer shall violence be heard of in your land, or plunder and ruin within your boundaries. You shall call your walls 'Salvation' and your gates 'Praise.'"
For more on the GK, visit www.gawadkalinga.org.